A raging dust bowl, towers of art deco architecture and a long stretch of road set the backdrop for 1934 Tulsa.
Americans were moving west and T-Town was a popular stop along the way. Infamous in many minds as the scene of the 1921 race riot and the disputed birthplace of Route 66, the Oil Capital of the World was about to become a pin on the entertainment map thanks to a charismatic young fiddler who found a permanent home from which to broadcast his wild musical stylings.
Famed broadcaster Paul Harvey was just beginning his airtime at an iconic radio station called KVOO-AM and Cain's Dance Academy was offering up dance lessons for ten cents apiece.
"When he got to Tulsa, to KVOO, the world changed," said Carolyn Wills, the eldest daughter of Bob and Betty. "That's where he was finally allowed to perform and that began that long legacy of afternoon broadcast."
Bob broadcasted from Cain's Ballroom every weekday at noon without fail, and hosted a dance each Thursday and Saturday from 1936 to 1942. The historic Tulsa landmark had not yet been adorned with its neon star and sparkling disco ball, but for the 1930s, Cain's Ballroom was as elegant a dance hall as any could find in Oklahoma.
The inside walls matched the red brick on the outside of the building, which had yet to be covered in the white stucco that now covers it from bottom to top. The floor fell at a slope, allowing patrons in the back to see over those standing in front of the stage, and the bandstand cozied up to a flat dance floor where attendees could swing and two-step to their heart's content.
FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL COOPER
Hot hillbilly music was hollering, and though the tunes had not yet evolved into western swing, they were beginning to capture attention and a young James Robert Wills was about to change the face of music forever, leaving a permanent mark on Tulsa and the future of rock 'n' roll.
"Time Changes Everything"
Travelling north from Waco, Texas, Bob Wills was ready for his one-time tryout spot on KVOO. His fiddling cowboy jazz could hold an audience, but it was the showman in this "playboy" that earned him a signature spot on the airwaves and a new home in what would later be known as Cain's Ballroom. The King of Western Swing found his throne and his reign continues to shape music today.
"On the bandstand, he was one of the greatest personalities," said Casey Dickens, former Texas Playboys drummer. "The only thing that was any more famous on the bandstand was Elvis Presley, and Bob had that same control when he was on the bandstand. He was real sure of himself and the music."
While Wills wasn't the first to combine the genres of country and jazz, he made it popular. On any given country radio station at the time, it was common to hear an acoustic guitar, a piano and maybe a fiddle jiving to a string-kept beat, but Wills' big band style -- which added a drum set, electric guitar and full horn section -- arguably paved the road for some of today's greatest recording artists.
Wills paved the way for modern country music, says Barry Epperley, Ph.D., the founding director of Tulsa Community College's Performing Arts Institute and conductor of the school's Signature Symphony. Without Wills, Epperley argues that Oklahoma greats like Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks might never have created some of their biggest hits.
"Would Brooks and Dunn have done 'Boot Scootin' Boogie' without Bob Wills? Probably not," he said. "The Oklahoma Swing (performed by Vince Gill and Reba McEntire) never would've happened without Bob Wills."
Wills' impact on modern music is without question. Countless great musicians -- from Carrie Underwood to Johnny Cash -- have rerecorded his songs over the decades. Waylon Jennings even wrote a little ditty called "Bob Wills is Still the King" and The Rolling Stones, British accent included, performed a cover of the 1975 tribute to an Austin audience, which was included in the Stones' 2007 concert DVD The Biggest Bang.
"Take Me Back To Tulsa"
Everyone knows Bob the showman, and the wild hollerin' and boogie dances that trademarked his image. Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys knew how to put on a show: black ties, bright bandanas and cowboy hats included. The act drew crowds from miles away. Audiences begged for more.
Eventually Wills' music career pushed him onto to the big screen. No stranger to travelling, Wills' moved his family between California, Texas and Oklahoma several times; but his return to T-Town was always inevitable.
While thousands watched Wills in The Lone Prairie and Blazing the Western Trail in the early 1940s, at day's end the Playboys front man returned home to four loving children and a doting wife. Betty Lou Anderson, who hailed from Sapulpa, was Wills' fifth wife and sixth marriage. Wills married one of his wives twice. The musician had two daughters from previous marriages, but the Wills' knew little about his past life for many years.
Jim Rob, as he was affectionately known by those close to him, spent his first years in Tulsa making a name for himself and sorting out the turbulent life of a young travelling musician.
In his early Tulsa days, Wills found himself sowing the kind of wild oats any young sensation is bound to do. He found more success than he ever dreamed on the bandstand at Cain's Ballroom broadcasting coast to coast on KVOO, but his personal life wasn't tame just yet.
Wills' wild drinking sprees were renowned.
"As is well known, though generally exaggerated, Bob's drinking was a serious problem and his greatest professional handicap during most of his career," wrote Charles Townsend in the authoritative biography, San Antonio Rose: The Life and Music of Bob Wills.
But for Wills' young family, the rowdiness stayed on the road. Those closest to him don't have many drinking-related memories of the musician and Wills' kindhearted and generous nature far outweighed the occasional, isolated binge.
It would be disingenuous to say that drinking didn't impact his career, but it was Wills' stage persona audiences fell in love with, and this intriguing personality was largely the same on stage and behind closed doors.
"Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone"
While the legend influenced music from The Beatles to Willie Nelson, it was the man tucked away in the outskirts of Tulsa that even his Playboys couldn't get near. Wills' family time was treasured and few were allowed to invade this sacred space.
When "Daddy" rolled in, his moments at home with James, Carolyn, Diane and Cindy were a far cry from his life on the road. The humble family man treasured his time away from the spotlight in a pink house near 21st and Sheridan Avenue. The cozy ranch style home these days is painted a different shade, but the barn that housed Wills' beloved horses still stands in the back.
"The house was for his relaxation," Carolyn said. "Every once in awhile they would have a meeting or jam session and that was always fascinating because wherever you were in the house you could hear, and it would always turn into Bob stories and people loved to tell those stories."
While Wills' affable personality was the same in every setting, the famous performer persona was neatly tucked away when he came home to his wife and kids. The media's focus on the musician's drinking eventually caught the ear of his family, but Carolyn never saw that side of her dad.
"We had absolutely no alcohol ever in our house. I think that when he came home, that was part of why that was his safety zone," she said. "As I got older, I heard the stories from the media ... I never actually experienced it and people in our family and inner circle didn't talk about it."
Instead, the lives of the Wills' kids were relatively normal. Unlike the modern Hollywood kids who grow up in the limelight and lead wild and crazy lives far before puberty, life in the outskirts of Tulsa was fairly typical for Carolyn and her siblings.
"We had family dinners. In fact, his favorite meal was red beans and cornbread, which she (Betty Wills) made from scratch. That was his favorite dinner," Carolyn said. "When he was home, we were a family and we watched television (like) Perry Mason and Ed Sullivan."
When Wills was away from his home life, the family continued on as usual. Instead of dinner with daddy, they would all wait until he made his nightly phone call to mom. No matter which region of the country the Playboys were performing in, the phone rang nightly without fail.
Dickens the drummer also helped manage the money Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys brought in during the latter part of his career. He recalls suggesting Wills call home less often to save funds, as he would regularly have lengthy, expensive conversations with Betty and the kids. Dickens remembers the musicians' annoyed response to the suggestion, wherein he insisted that his nightly calls were the most important part of his day.
"Home life was like two existences. There was when he was on the road, and the rule in our house was that we didn't go anywhere until he called because he called every day," Carolyn said. "And the question was always, 'Has daddy called yet?' And then when that big bus would pull up he was home. Home was staying at home because that's what he wanted to do. That was his refuge; you could totally tell that that's where he relaxed."
When Wills took his family out to dinner, fans would regularly come up to the table. The kind musician never turned folks away. Wills made friends wherever he went, even if the restaurant patrons weren't aware of his stardom.
When Bob performed at Cain's Ballroom or other local venues, his family might as well have been a million miles away. Although Carolyn and her siblings may have lived in the same town the Texas Playboys performed in, Wills' music world remained under lock and key -- especially for his daughters.
"We were brought up that the music business is not the best place for young girls to be," Carolyn said. "He had a real rule about not being backstage with people and he didn't allow wives of band members to be there because that tended to cause problems."
While Wills was playing in Las Vegas, Carolyn finally managed to sneak a peek from the sidewalk outside The Golden Nugget. She remembers the first glimpse of her father's performance so vividly because Wills' opening act was Wayne Newton, Carolyn's childhood crush, who was just "so cute." Seeing Wills on stage was a common sight for audiences everywhere, but it was a strange phenomenon for his eldest daughter.
"Seeing him dance and perform was so out of character because he was our father," she said.
The Golden Nugget show was the last of Carolyn's Playboy performances until her father's 60th birthday. She was always aware of his stardom, but it wasn't until she was much older that she truly realized the impact and legacy of the man on the bandstand.
"It was so funny because I grew up during the period when western swing and country had quieted and rock 'n' roll was the big deal, so for years I knew, of course, that he was well known, that he performed, but it wasn't until the early '60s when there was a resurgence of country by Waylon and Willie when I began to understand the real depth of his influence," Carolyn said.
While swinging music and extended travel weren't the topic of conversation in the Wills' home, there were some parts of the life that neighbors and friends couldn't overlook.
When it rolled back into T-Town, the big Texas Playboy bus was hard to miss. Otherwise, the musical legend was just a regular father to the nomadic Wills' children. The musician made friends with his children's friends, often choosing nicknames to remember them by. Carolyn's closest friend, Nancy Wilson, was affectionately known as "Squinchy" by daddy dearest.
"My friends would always say, 'Everybody knows when your father is home because the big bus pulls up,'" Carolyn said. "They always got excited when he was home because he had nicknames for everybody. He always went out of his way to talk to my friends."
Horse Play. Off
stage, Wills was
horses. The musician
spent thousands of
dollars on horses over
the years and though
his music wasn’t an
at home, his love of
horses was practically
bred into his children.
Apart from music and family, Wills spent endless hours with his horses. His true passion off the bandstand, Wills spent thousands of dollars on horses over the years and though his music wasn't an everyday conversation at home, his love of horses was practically bred into his children.
"That's the thing that I would say we shared the most with him," Carolyn said. "I had a horse when I was 11 and 12 and he would come home and work with me and show me things and that's where he really felt free and that's why my sister ended up creating her own ranch, I think."
In developing Tulsa, the 21st and Sheridan area was practically rural. The intersection that now houses a used car dealership, thrift store and Chinese restaurant used to be the stomping ground for Carolyn and other neighborhood kids who frolicked about on horseback.
Life at Home. Wills was a family man who treasured his time away
from the spotlight in a pink house near 21st and Sheridan Avenue, his
“refuge.” His children’s lives were relatively normal, Carolyn said, down to
family dinners and evenings around the TV. Wills worked hard to keep his
stage and home life separate, but he called home every night while on tour.
Wills believed in living life to its fullest and didn't hesitate to drop large sums of money on things he felt were important. His first priority was always his family, but the genius performer lacked shrewd business skills, and promoters often cheated him. The eldest of 10 children with a growing brood of his own at home, Wills' sense of responsibility extended to those he considered family, but weren't in his bloodline.
"He was in a place where he could help family members and that was without question," Carolyn said. "It extended to everyone; the band members, friends. If he could help them, he did."
"The End of the Line"
Tulsa gave Wills his real first start. The city gave him a stage for singing, musicians to play with and radio waves to carry the sound. While Wills' family practically "grew up on Route 66," Tulsa was home and would serve as a comfortable reminder throughout their many travels. For Carolyn, Tulsa "will always be the memory of home."
For all Tulsa gave to Wills, a safe hideaway may have been the most important. Although they moved away in their later years, Bob and Betty Wills returned to Tulsa in death; peacefully laid to rest at Memorial Park Cemetery.
"Tulsa was probably his favorite place to have lived and it wasn't by accident that that's where he was buried and where my mother is," Carolyn said.
While T-Town gave a lot to the King of Western Swing, Wills was equally generous. He began one of the nation's leading rodeos, which would later be sustained by his brother, Johnnie Lee Wills. The Johnnie Lee Wills Tulsa Stampede Rodeo disbanded upon Johnnie's death in 1984.
Most importantly, Wills began a sonic tradition here in Tulsa, which reverberates to this day in artists everywhere.
Wills' impact will be more tangible and accessible in the near future as the Bob Wills Heritage Foundation has made a large donation to the planned Oklahoma Pop Museum, which is destined for Tulsa's Brady Arts District. Scores of artifacts, from Wills' driver's license to a personal collection of cigars will be on display for fans and young, aspiring artists.
The museum is currently in the "conservation process," said the Oklahoma Historical Society's Jeff Moore, the project director for OKPOP.
"The Bob Wills story is so integral to music, Tulsa in particular," Moore said. "There will be a complete Bob Wills section, on his life, his family, but we're also going to provide the context so that the music that influenced him and his influences."
For the truly inspired, the Heritage Foundation is also planning to open a swing school in town.
Carolyn is excited that Oklahoma has recognized her father's place in the state's history.
"Somehow, Tulsa has managed to embrace more than the music," she said, "the man is part of the culture."
Share this article: